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Life on the edge of the electric car ecosystem: A desperate drive from charge to charge

Melissa Riofrio | Oct. 10, 2013
You don't drive an electric car. It drives you, from charging station to charging station, as you plan your trips around maintaining the battery.

If you just bought an electric car, you may be loath to admit it, but it's true: Although you're no longer a servant to Big Oil, you've signed up for another problem entirely—the urgent need to charge your car.

Sure, if you can design a driving routine around reliable charging sources, you may be able to get around your city—and even commute to work—with little disruption. But if your local charging-station infrastructure doesn't play in your favor, you'll begin to feel trapped within a gated community. Inside lies security. Outside lies risk. This is life on the fragmented edge of the electric-car ecosystem.

I've lived on that edge, having spent the past few months with two all-electric cars and one plug-in hybrid. Lacking a charging station at home or the workplace, I had two choices: Plug one of the loaner cars into my household electrical outlet overnight, or find publicly available charging stations as I tested the fleet vehicles throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

I quickly realized I was a have-not in this developing infrastructure. Last week was National Plug In Day, but I wasn't celebrating any time I faced the prospect of running out of battery power on a dark road. More stations are vital to attracting more drivers to the electric-car ecosystem. Automakers and public and private entities continue to invest in charging stations, but the economics are challenging.

The basics of the electric-car lifestyle
For those of you new to electric cars, the charging experience works like this: You can plug your car into a standard, 120V AC outlet at home and charge most batteries from low to full in 10 to 12 hours. This is called a Level 1 charger. You can install a Level 2 charging station, which uses a 240V connection and generally takes 5 or more hours to charge a battery. Level 2 is also the most common kind of charging station installed at workplaces and shopping malls. The highest-end charging option—which is still pretty rare—is a Quick Charging or DC Fast station, which can charge a battery to full in 20 minutes to 1 hour.

Most charging stations are managed by a network company, which usually requires payment for using the station (unless it's a subsidized station). The easiest way to pay is to join the network, so you can swipe a membership card at the station or use an app. If you don't belong to the network, you should be able to pay either by phone or online.

Flouting charging-station etiquette
For my very first experience charging an electric car, I set out with a friend in the Toyota RAV4 EV to visit the town of Los Gatos, California, where public parking lots have a handful of charging stations.


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